Statement by the Deputy Executive Director, UNEP at the International Pledging Conference on Avian and Human Pandemic Influenza

Beijing, China, 17 – 18 January 2006


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me first of all express UNEP’s appreciation to the host country for organizing this most timely event, the Secretary General for having put Global Health on the World’s agenda probably best reflected by his personal initiative to establish the Global fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria as well as the representative of the European Union for having reflected the environmental dimension of avian flu and the potential of controlling a disease by understanding its root causes.

The emergence of avian flu as a challenge to human health is clearly a reflection of major changes taking place in the environment such as through the intensification for example of poultry farming with all its consequences.

We know that migratory birds may be one vector, but they are not the cause of avian flu. Nor are they likely to be the only, or principal vector.

Human-induced movements of poultry, or captured wild or captive-bred birds, and of humans themselves, seem likely to be an equal or greater threat. Live animal markets which facilitate millions of potential cross-infections are also a major but, until recently, less recognized threat.

We know too that avian flu is not the only one disease with an environmental health background - a startling number of new similar vector-born diseases have emerged in recent years - Lassa, SARS, Ebola, Marburg and avian flu.

A common factor is that such diseases evolve when humans intensively interact with the natural environment. The progress of SARS showed how quickly a new disease can move from one village in a corner of the world around the globe to dozens of other nations.

This is why we must rise to the global health challenge of avian flu.

What can we from the environmental community to complement the human medical and research response?

UNEP is not a wealthy body in terms of funds. But we are rich in environmental expertise. We stand ready to contribute that expertise to the efforts which have so far been focusing on human and animal health issues. This includes the know-how available through the multilateral conventions such as CBD, CITES and CMS and the networks of scientists and informed NGOs whom they partner.

Funds from the larger agencies, and donor states, are needed to utilize this expertise in answering several key questions:

- How does the flu virus behave in wild birds that catch it, and how long can it survive in the aquatic habitats that are breeding, staging and non-breeding (wintering) grounds for the birds?

- How is the virus actually being transmitted between domestic and wild birds?

- Which migratory routes and specific locations can we pinpoint as posing the highest levels of risk both to and from migrating birds, including globally threatened species?

- By answering these and other questions we should be able to move towards developing a global surveillance or “early warning” system.

- This would monitor the occurrence of avian influenza among waterbirds along their migratory routes, and identify potentially high-risk ‘hot spots” where cross-infection between wild and domestic birds could be predicted, allowing precautionary measures such as improved hygiene standards and the separation of domestic birds to be taken.

UNEP HQ and the Secretariat of the UNEP-based Convention on Migratory Species have already begun to work towards such a system, taking advantage of the Scientific Task Force set up by CMS and several other inter-governmental and NGO bodies last year.

Education and information are also fundamental to the effort to combat AI, both in delivering the latest results of scientific analysis to government authorities and affected communities, and in ensuring that uninformed or counter-productive response measures, such as attempts to cull large groups of migratory birds, or destroy their wetland habitats, are not taken as a substitute for the real solutions, which we already know must be based on improved hygienic standards in animal markets and farms of all sizes, a move to less intensive forms of poultry production, and the development of human and animal vaccines.

Governments need to promote awareness and in many cases they will need financial help to do so, as part of a wider package of capacity development measures.

I commend the lead which FAO and WHO are taking in these areas. In the conservation and environmental arena, I also commend to you the work of the CMS-led Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza, which has already helped to explode some of the myths about the spread of the H5N1 virus. I would like on behalf of CMS and the Task Force today to pledge their support to initiatives agreed at this meeting which can benefit form the expertise and advice of the Task Force members.

Moreover I thank the Government representatives at the recent Conference of Parties to three Conventions in Oct-Nov-2005 – UNEP/CMS, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the CMS African Eurasian Water Bird Agreement (AEWA), who passed crucial reductions on AI which must now be funded and implemented.

In conclusion, the real danger is complacency. In fact we have never been in a better position to consolidate our previous gains and to move on to add health, wealth and a better environment to our world.

Now it is essential to help developing countries to acquire sufficient capacity to implement such central measures.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The fact that we meet together, experts from different disciplines promotes consilience. Consilience, literally the bringing together of knowledge from different disciplines.

Our task is to make those connections fit better - the environment lies at the core of the challenge. It is the new interdependence and the new global dynamics which have positioned environment as the defining characteristic of the global society of the 21st century.

Thank you very much!


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